Black and White and Grey all Over

So the lady who wrote me about the girl who was mean to me in junior high and I had a little chat via email over a few days. I actually enjoyed chatting with her. She seems nice. Anyway, I kept thinking about that time in my life, maybe because my brother is living with me for the time being and I think about childhood, I don’t know. One thing I have thought a lot about was what kind of a kid I was back then, especially from about age 12 to age 14. Looking back, I still don’t think I like who I was. I know there are all these self-help growth books blah blah blah that tell us to go back and love our inner child and embrace that kid who felt so rotten about herself.

Whatever. I don’t mean to be dismissive when a person needs that, but for me, what a load of crap. I could perhaps feel some compassion for the kid who was picked on and whose stepfather had turned out to be mean instead of loving and possibly even for the big dork that I was as I tried to navigate through junior high, hormones, and popularity. But in some ways I was exactly like the mean girls, just trying to survive. Funny what humans will do when they think it will buy them some control.

I watch movies like Mean Girls, where the main characters come to the realization that they are selfish and shitty and shallow, and it’s great that this is how it comes to be for them. But in my life, I was not as enlightened. I decided not to be friends with Sandra Gordon based solely on the fact that the other girls I wanted to be friends with termed her a “scumbag.” I purposely pulled away from her for no other reason than that. I wanted to be included with more popular people and if that meant dumping Sandra, then I did it, even while the even more popular girls were picking on me.

And later I stopped being friends with Dee Roberts for the simple reason that I heard others thought we were gay, and I did not want anyone to think that. So stupid. So shallow. It was years before I grew any sort of personal backbone, years before I quit giving a shit what other people think and standing on my own. Luckily Dee and I have some friends in common so as adults we were able to reconnect.

I look back now and am amazed at my ability to cut my friendships off with such precision. Perhaps we would have grown apart anyway, but I will never know that because when I decided that I was not going to be friends with someone anymore, that was the end of the friendship. Thinking on it now, maybe some of that ability was just the age. I had friends who cut me off with the same sharp capacity when they saw me as a hindrance to their own popularity. Friends one minute, not friends the next.

I followed my friends Rae and Wendy around like a puppy, begging them to love me. Especially Rae. She was my best friend, in my eyes, but I wasn’t hers. I was there for her, but she wanted Shawna Peterson. And at some point Shawna Peterson decided that she hated me. So if Rae was hanging out with Shawna then she was not hanging out with me.  I guess I can hardly blame her.  In eighth grade all my friends had braces.  I had perfectly straight teeth.  So one day I wore tin foil to school.  I told Rae the dentist made me do it.  Seriously.  I did this.  Is it any wonder few people wanted me near them?

Rae never openly told me not to let anyone know I was her friend, but she did not hang out with me at school. I hung out with Sandra Gordon until Rae and Wendy told me I shouldn’t, then I didn’t hang out with anyone. Those years in junior high were utterly hopeless, utterly miserable. Then I went home and life there sucked too.

I wonder where the kids with a backbone get the backbone. In movies, the left out child that the others bully comes back with a vengeance, kicking ass and proving their inner strength. Often the bullies realize that they don’t have to be so mean either. In my real life, I did not have any such inner strength. I hated myself. I think I believed them.

Occasionally I would stand up for myself, but I was fucking scared to death of it. One time on the bus, a torture chamber if there ever was one, these girls put gum in my hair. They were perfect. They had perfect clothes, perfect hair, perfect makeup. And they hated my guts, just because I wore the wrong clothes, the wrong hair, wore no makeup, and probably looked like I was waiting to be kicked. I told the bus driver. She told me to put gum in their hair the next day. I waited, planning to do so, but scared shitless to actually go through with it. I ended up just putting gum on the pants of the girl who instigated it all. I don’t think she even noticed.

Another time, the bus driver made me get off early and walk to my house. I was pissed. So I hid in the bushes in front of my house and when she drove by, I threw gravel at the bus. She pulled it over, brakes screeching. I hightailed it into the house and hid. My sister Melanie wouldn’t let her in. I think I got written up, but I don’t remember. Funny, that bus driver was a friend and an enemy. Mostly I did not like her. She let a lot happen on the bus that shouldn’t have.

It is also interesting that when I would stand up for myself and not chicken out, I was ruthless, kind of like with cutting off my friends. Where is that? Where does it come from, that ruthlessness? That ability to be so cold? I just don’t know. But I could do it. Maybe it’s that survival instinct, that belief in some control.

The main person able to incur my wrath without fear was Kim Dawson, Melanie’s friend. She hated me and I hated her. I don’t recall why. But she was constantly after me. The first time I fought back, I had gotten on the bus wearing purple cropped pants before they were in fashion. I think I just wore them because I liked them but had outgrown the length. As was typical in those days, I did not have a lot of clothes and my parents would not buy what was in fashion. My mom tried making me some pants like the other girls wore, but it didn’t make me popular. Nothing could have, I don’t think.

Anyway, Kim asked me if I was waiting for a flood. When she went to get off the bus, I stuck my foot out into the bus aisle as she walked by, smearing mud on her pants. She was pissed. She pulled my hair when I got off the bus. I pulled hers. The bus driver pulled us apart. We both got written up.

Then another time, the bus was really crowded. I sat in a seat near the front with a little boy. She was in the seat directly behind me. She leaned forward and made some comment about me and the little boy. I reached back and slapped her in the face. She grabbed my hair. I kept hitting her until she let go of my hair. I think we may have gotten written up then too.

Funny, I was written up three times in junior high, but all three times were so far apart that each time, the principal said since it was the only time I’d been written up, he’d let it go at that. Makes me laugh.

The final time I fought with Kim, I beat the crap out of her. I was twelve years old. She was at our house with my sister. The two were nagging me, picking at me, egging me on. Finally, Kim said something to me that I do not remember now. I jumped her. I sat on her and hit her. Melanie screamed. I finally got up and that was the last time Kim bugged me, but we hated each other to death.

Luckily for me, Rae hated Kim too, so we would order pizzas to her house and make hair appointments for her at salons in town. This was in the days before caller id and all that tracking. We knew her address and phone number so it was easy. Later, she got a boyfriend who was a really big dork, and Rae and Wendy would tease Kim about him. I just joined as a watcher. I loved it because I still hated Kim.

I can’t believe now that I got in hitting fights. Actually, my fights with Kim were the only fights I’ve ever had where hitting was involved. And mine wasn’t one of those situations where I saw open violence at home all the time or anything. Our home was filled with the stealthy kind of violence, like a gaseous poison that oozes through the walls; words laced with hate, looks of vile hatred, screaming matches between parents while children hid in their rooms, doors slammed. Except when I would get hit for doing something, which was somewhat infrequent, we didn’t witness hitting or slapping like some of my friends did. My fighting with Kim came from my own inner capacity to whack someone. I don’t know where she got hers.

Funny, I read back through this and it’s as though I’ve unintentionally continued the same theme that permeates all my posts lately: nothing is black and white, human behavior is mostly directed by an illusion of control or an attempt to garner control. Like I said, it has not been intentional. It just keeps coming up. Maybe there is some deep dark purpose behind this, but more likely it is just that these are central themes in human behavior and I happen to be noticing them in my attempt to reach a point. I don’t know. I do know that I’ve been writing for a hour now and my daughter is irritated at me because she wants to go bike riding and she says I “always write” and she can’t understand it. She wants me to stop and focus on her. So that is what I will do. Maybe I’ll have to show her the scene at the end of the movie Stand By Me where the dad is writing and his son who has obviously been waiting and waiting comes in and asks him when they are finally going to leave and the dad says in a minute. Then the boy turns and tells his friend his dad gets like that when he writes. See Milla? I’m not the only one.

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Dang Me

So today I pissed off two strangers.  One of them was just plain idiotic and mean.  He didn’t like what I said about Bush and started in on a character assassination of me.  None of what he said had any basis in reality.  None of his assumptions made any sense based on my post.  Among other things, he called me uneducated, stupid, fat, and told me I take no responsibility for my life.  Okay.  Whatever.  None of that is true.  Unfortunately, I took the bait and sent him back 3 emails, one saying my house isn’t in foreclosure, another saying I have two college degrees, and the final stating I’m actually not overweight.  In each case I wished him well.  As the day progressed, I thought a bit more about him and I realized this man is probably a really unhappy person who is undoubtedly completely alienated from everyone.  He is so angry and mean, I seriously doubt he ever listens to what anyone has to say and instead begins every encounter with an attack.  His is the behavior of someone who is not present.  He deserves nothing except compassion because I can safely assume he is miserable.

The other person made some assumptions as well, but at least the tone of “her” email was kinder than the first.  I say “her” in quotes because I do not know what gender the person was because “she” did not give her name.  However she said some things in the message that led me to believe that her gender is female.  She called herself “Tea Rock.”  Tea Rock stated that she knew the person who had been mean to me in junior high.  Tea Rock thought I was the meaner girl because what I said in my story about Kelly was “vitriolic.”  She said she could not believe an adult would say what I had said about what Kelly told me when I saw her some years later.  She was also concerned that Kelly’s children might read my post.

I emailed Tea Rock back.  I told her that Kelly did in fact say the words I attribute to her, whether or not Tea Rock believed me.  I also questioned her assessment of my descriptions of Kelly as vitriolic.  Vitriol means caustic, and while I am certainly critical of Kelly and her actions, I do not believe my words rise to the level of vitriol.  Finally, I pointed out that although I was critical of Kelly, I also offered my belief that something must have been happening in Kelly’s life that she made these choices.  In doing so, I recognized that there is always more than one perspective; this story just happened to be mine.

Because I was contacted by this person who claimed to know Kelly, I edited my post and changed Kelly’s last name.  Hers was a rather unique last name even though her first name is common.  I changed the boy’s last name to a more common one as well.  Their real names aren’t necessary; I just honestly thought no one who knew them would ever care about what I had to say.  I’m not exactly Oprah.

I thought a lot about this second email this evening.  I found it interesting that Tea Rock was concerned about Kelly’s children reading my post.  It is ironic.  Because Tea Rock purported to know Kelly, then her concern was for Kelly’s children.  What if she had known me, would her concern have then been for my child?  Assuming Milla did not know how I was treated in junior high, how would it be for her to know how it had been for me?  It is such human nature to take the side related to us.  Because Tea Rock knew Kelly, Tea Rock’s concern was for Kelly’s children.  If Tea Rock had known me, I doubt she would have cared if Kelly’s children read my post.  In fact one of my friends commented on that same blog and was cheered by the ending.  Since she had been a bullying victim and since she knew me, she found it “karmic” that Kelly ended up as she did.  I don’t know that I necessarily agree that is was karmic.  Mostly I just think it’s pathetic and sad.  I hope she has moved on with her life.  Tea Rock did say that although she did not know Kelly well, she could not imagine her acting this way.  Perhaps this is an indication that Kelly used her early experiences to grow and become a stronger, kinder person.  Who knows.

I’ve talked to my daughter quite extensively about bullying.  It would not be a shock to her to read a story where her mom was picked on because I’ve told her all about it.  In second grade, a girl in her class picked on Milla.  She went out of her way to exclude my daughter and got all the girls in class to do so as well.  My initial thought when this began to occur was, Oh no. Not again. Not my daughter.  Milla is so much more confident than I was.  She’s pretty, smart, and outspoken.  I actually cried at the thought that Milla would have to go through what I did.

I had cancer last year.  The parents in my daughter’s class made us meals and set up playdates.  They were unbelievably kind.  When the Bully Girl started harassing Milla, I did not have the heart to talk to her mom about it.  It just seemed so ungrateful to complain to this woman about her child when she was making us meals and helping us out, along with countless others.  I gave Milla some tips for handling things and when that did not work, I went to the teacher.  He was useless.  There were many, many other problems in his class besides this one and because of his ineffectiveness in handling the bullying and other problems, we chose to change schools.  We are still friends with students from the school and know children in the class.  Unfortunately, the Bully Girl has moved on to other targets.  It is sad.  I wonder what is happening in her little life that she acts this way.  But while I feel compassion for her, it is still my job to protect my daughter and I did that by getting her out of there.

In spite of everything, Milla seemed to handle the bullying better than I did.  Maybe having a mom to support her helped.  I did not have any such support as a child.  In this situation, I began to understand more fully that the behavior of bullies has more to do with them than with their chosen victims, although this realization did not lessen the pain of seeing my daughter suffer through nasty treatment at the hands of these girls.  It is one of those difficult lessons every parent has to learn; that their children have to live their own lives and experience their own pain and growth.  It is what makes them fully human.

While I recognize that Tea Rock’s perspective comes from her concern for her friend, other than changing the names of the people in question, I did not alter my story.  It’s mine, for better or worse.  Kelly has hers.  Mike has his.  I’m not going to censor my life or experiences because it might make someone uncomfortable.  If I had something to say that would genuinely damage another person I would not say it.  But in this case especially, I think my story provides a greater opportunity for benefit than for harm.  My point wasn’t to punish my tormentors, but to show that we grow up and get past junior high.  Even though we might meet more nasty people later and in fact it is probably a guarantee, we’ll survive it.  And seriously, what’s wrong with that?

Development of the Opossum Approach

Caveat:  I originally posted this with the actual names intact.  Turns out enough people find these posts that a person who knew one of the players contacted me, so I have changed the names to make them anonymous.  All other facets of the story are my memories and true to the best of my recollection.

I have been thinking a lot today about mean people and the opossum approach and all that and I have concluded that a large bit of preparation for being mean is cultivated during junior high. I certainly got a great deal of practice being victimized by mean people in junior high. I was a target ripe for the pickings. And I most definitely mastered the opossum approach. I could walk through the halls invisibly and when necessary, play dead. I’m not here. Do not notice me. Avoid paying any attention at all costs. Sometimes though, I failed utterly and completely at avoiding notice, in spite of my best efforts.

I remember an incident that took place on one particularly memorable afternoon. It occurred in Sex Ed class, which on some level makes the whole thing much more vivid. I had a crush on Mike Jones. Mike was lanky and horse-faced, with tousley brown hair, but I thought he was adorable. Mike was popular. He was on the football team. Everyone knew who he was. He did not know who I was. I would fantasize that he would say hello to me. That was how silly and naive I was. I did not even consider hand-holding or kissing. At age twelve, such conjectures were well without my realm of possibility. No. Saying hello was about as brave as I could get. Because of my crush, I wrote “I like MJ” on my palm. Why did I do that? Did some little part of me hope he would notice and fall instantly in love with me at the sight of his initials inscribed on my hand? Was I a fool? Come to think of it, I doubt I thought much of anything. I probably sat there in my preteen, hormone-addled state, reading something in the library. I read a lot in the library. In fact, I took pride in the fact that I had read every book in the junior high library by the end of eighth grade. I also won the library’s “Ghastly Riddle Contest” at Halloween. It was a sort of treasure hunt through haunted books whereby clues were given in the form of quotes. You went to the quote and it would lead you to another clue. It required some knowledge of the books involved to locate the original quotes. A weekly clue would be handed out to help you when you were stumped. I won a nice set of horse books. I think they knew that I would win since I doubt anyone else tried.  Few people would have been geeky enough to play at a contest like that and I was too clueless to know it was geeky.

Anyway, I digress. Back to my lusting after Mike Jones by hoping he would say hello. I had taken the liberty of professing my love via ball point pen. I sat, hiding, in the far row of Sex Ed class. I do not recall the name of the teacher, but I remember what he looked like. He was one of the coaches. He was tall and stocky, with blonde hair cut in a bowl style. Unlike some teachers, he was actually pretty kind to me. The head cheerleading coach, for instance, acted like I was a virus she might catch if I asked her something about the pre-algebra that she taught. But Mr. Sex Ed was pleasant enough.

There I sat in Mr. Sex Ed’s class. It was a sunny afternoon and I remember sitting and staring lazily into the sunbeams. I had done the reading. Mr. Sex Ed was dozing up front. Most of the class was chatting and passing notes back and forth. Suddenly, Kelly Smith, who sat behind me, leaned forward in her chair and asked me a question.

An aside about Kelly Smith. When my parents chose to move our family to “the country” because that is where I thought I wanted to live in order to have a horse, I was in the sixth grade. The little school in our town had one grade per class and each class had about twelve students. Kelly Smith was in my class. She immediately befriended me and nearly as immediately dumped me when she discovered that I did not smoke, drink, or swear, and that I rode horses and read books. She had perfectly feathered blonde hair. I did not have perfectly feathered blonde hair. Mine curled in all the wrong places and my mom cut it for me. How humiliating. Kelly Smith wore San Franciscos and Sticky Fingers and had several colors of Nike swish shoes. I had one pair of Sticky Fingers, no San Franciscos, and no Nike swish shoes. I wore Keds and Keds were not popular. Kelly Smith knew that one was supposed to carry a large comb in one’s back pocket. Until meeting her, I was not privy to such inside information. In short, Kelly Smith had all the makings of a cool person while I had zero. By the end of seventh grade, when this incident took place, we were in junior high and I was a persona non grata. Kelly Smith was a cheerleader. She still had perfectly feathered hair. Mine still curled in the wrong places. I think I may have finally acquired a pair of Nike swish shoes and a comb, but they were clearly out of place in the library.

I was not happy to have Kelly Smith peering over my shoulder. Kelly Smith did not involve herself with me except to make my life miserable. She had completely mastered the pretend to be friendly and suck me in while simultaneously concocting some nasty evil plot approach. She would say something that seemed kind. Weaving back and forth, back and forth, hypnotizing me, I would respond to the false kindness, believing for a moment that she might actually be friendly, whereupon she would suddenly expose her true nature, losing the lovely exterior, spitting in my eyes and becoming the cobra she truly was. Once she put gum in my hair without my notice. Usually she would say something really ugly and make her friends laugh. “Do you use butter grease to style your hair?” she would sneer. Her friends would erupt in laughter. Ha ha. Real funny. You’re so clever, why don’t you hit the comedy circuit?

Back in Sex Ed, she wanted to know, “Who is MJ?” Uh oh. Uh oh. Uh oh. Fuck.

“Nobody you know.” My heart was pounding. Why couldn’t she just go away? Why did she have to torture me? Was I really such an obvious target? Apparently so because she did not go away. “So who is it?”

“No one you know. Someone from another school.” God, please don’t let her know. Mike Jones was in that class. If he found out. Oh crap.

“What’s his name? Is it Mike Jones?” What the….? How in the hell had she nailed that on the first try? Maybe she saw my hand and worked it out before saying anything.

“No. No, it’s not Mike Jones. It is not. No.” I stammered, obviously flustered. I must have seemed like a giant bullseye for her pointy cobra fangs.

“It’s Mike Jones, isn’t it.” It wasn’t even a question. “You like Mike Jones. Wow.” She turned and told her friend, another Kelly who must not have been so evil because I do not remember her last name. “She likes Mike Jones. Can you believe it?” Kelly could not believe it. In fact, she was so shocked that she had to share it with the girl next to her.

Then Kelly Smith did the unthinkable. She called out to Mike Jones, “Hey Mike. Lara likes you.” Oh dear God. Please kill me now. I should be punished for having written those damn initials on my hand. Actually, I was being punished for having written them on my hand. Mike turned and looked over in our direction. He may have been looking at me. I don’t know. I was staring at my desk and begging the gods to reach down and suck me from my chair. Anything, anything but this.

“Is this bad news true?” he asked. All the kids who had been paying attention laughed.

My pain was complete. Not only had I been fully humiliated by darling Kelly Smith, Mike Jones saw my liking him as bad news and he wasn’t afraid to say so. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I suffered through the remainder of the class, wishing I could disappear. Having ensured she had gotten a good and deep bite right into the side of my head, Kelly Smith was no longer interested in torturing me. She moved on to discussions of cheerleading routines and hairdos. My face burned and the room swam. I pretended to read my Sex Ed book. At least I could say the bad news was no longer true. I no longer liked Mike Jones and could not wait for class to end so I could go and wash my hand.

Once the bell rang, I shuffled through my belongings to take as long as possible to leave class and ensure I did not have to rise and move with the other students. After every one was gone I sat for a few more seconds. Alone in the room, I took a deep breath. It seemed like it had been long enough for the lot of them to clear out of the hallway.

You know, I must have lacked some serious capacity to foretell possibilities because it had not been long enough for Mike Jones to clear out of the hallway. He was the only one left, digging through his locker that was nearly across the hall from the Sex Ed classroom. Mine was down past his, requiring that I pass him, completely humiliated. Thankfully, he did not look up as I shuffled quickly by. Perhaps part of his dismay at my liking him had been for show. Certainly his reaction had been. At least he left me alone. I went to my locker, deposited my books, and took the long way around to P.E. class because the direct route would have taken me past his locker again, and there was no way I was going there.

Yes, junior high is definitely a breeding ground for mean people. Volumes have been written on the subject. Millions have been made in movies about the outcasts being tortured. Pleasure is taken in the geek who grows up and shows up to the high school reunion in a heliocopter. I think we all assume that as adults this crap goes away. Unfortunately, that’s wishful thinking. Even when you grow into a swan and develop inner strength and confidence, there are those people who never move past being mean to you.

Luckily for me, we had moved away from that school after ninth grade, so Kelly and her friends were only able to harass me for three years. I heard that she got pregnant her senior year in high school. A few years after graduation, I saw her at a discount store. She was extremely heavy and was dragging around four ruffian-looking children. A friend of mine who had finished school with her said they all had different fathers. I remembered her bragging in eighth grade about drinking and having sex. Maybe whatever made her so damn mean was also what made her gain weight and have lots of kids by different dads by the time she was 25. She’d clearly hit her prime in junior high. She was still mean though. At the store, she came up to me and sneered, “You think you’re really hot now, don’t you, Lara?”

I remember looking at her, not knowing who she was because she looked so wretched and different. When it was obvious I hadn’t a clue about her identity, she said, “I’m Kelly, Kelly Smith,” like I was retarded or something. Funny. I realize now she sounded something like Forrest, Forrest Gump. I said hello and turned to continue walking with my mom. Thankfully, when it came to girls from junior high, I didn’t have to pretend I was dead any more.